Aug. 12, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. – Jason Dufner was tired. You could see it in his eyes. And why wouldn’t he have been tired?
It was less than six hours after the biggest moment of his golf life when Dufner walked out of the private jet that brought him and his wife Amanda back to the Auburn University Airport late Sunday night. He came carrying the Wanamaker Trophy. He had won the PGA Championship, one of golf’s four majors.
Dufner could have had a car meet him at the plane. He could have blown off reporters and well-wishers who waited on the tarmac. He could have. But he didn’t.
Instead, Dufner answered every question. When the questions were done, he posed for pictures, signed autographs, hugged friends. And when it was time, he climbed into the driver’s seat of his black SUV and he and Amanda headed home.
That’s the Jason Dufner so many in Auburn know and respect. It’s the guy that hits practice balls and even plays rounds with weekend golfers. An All-American Auburn golfer as a senior in 2000, he’s an unabashed Auburn supporter. He and head football coach Gus Malzahn are close friends and have been since Malzahn was offensive coordinator.
Retired golf coach Mike Griffin, who coached Dufner in his Auburn days, wouldn’t have expected him to be any other way.
“He’s just a regular guy like all the rest of the folks around him,” Griffin said. “That’s why people are identifying with him. He’s just a genuinely good person. I’m real proud of the golfer he’s become, but I’m much prouder of the man he’s become. I hope he never changes.”
In the fall of 1996, the notion of Dufner hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy would have seemed outlandish.
Dufner, who was born in Cleveland, moved to Fort Lauderdale when he was 14 and walked on at Auburn four years later.
“He wasn’t invited,” Griffin said. “The day he got here, I didn’t know who Jason Dufner was. It’s one of those rare circumstances where somebody starts at the bottom and works his way all the way to the top.”
Griffin held a walk-on qualifier each fall. The varsity players would set a target score. For Dufner to make the team, he had to meet or exceed that number. And he did.
“He came in and, as they say, kicked the door down,” Griffin said.
It wasn’t long before Griffin knew Dufner very well. Dufner was a three-time All-Southeastern Conference performer and an All-American as a senior in 2000. Like he had believed he could excel in the SEC, he believed he could be a winner as a pro. He started from the bottom again. He played on the Nationwide Tour in 2001-2003, made the PGA Tour in 2004 and was back on the Nationwide Tour in 2005 and 2006.
In 2007, Dufner earned his PGA Tour card, and the climb to greatness began in earnest. There were bumps along the way, none more jarring than losing a 5-shot lead in four holes at the 2011 PGA Championship in Atlanta. But Dufner persevered.
Along the way, he became popular with his fellow golfers and with fans. “Dufnering,” a somewhat strange looking sitting position that Dufner unwittingly took while visiting an elementary school, became all the rage.
Dufner was having a good time, but his focus was always on the mountaintop. Sunday, he got there.
Griffin says Dufner has the tools and the shot-making ability he needs. But what makes his former pupil great comes from the inside. He saw it growing when Dufner was in college.
“When he was on the golf course, he wanted to cut your heart out,” Griffin said. “He was out there to win. It took him a while at every level to learn how to handle that.”
He handled it Sunday all the way to the first major championship of his career and the first major championship won by an Auburn alumnus.
Before he left Rochester, Dufner reflected on what it all meant.
“"It's definitely going to change my life,” Dufner said, “but I'm determined that it's not going to change me.”
Back home, wearing his Auburn warmup suit, Dufner backed up those words.
“He’s just a regular Joe,” Griffin said. “And I’m proud of him.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: